Avoid Entering an SSL PassPhrase During Apache Startup with SSLPassPhraseDialog

When creating an SSL key for use with an Apache web server, you have an option of specifying a pass phrase on the certificate. This is a security feature that prevents somebody from being able to use the certificate, even if they have your key file. In theory it is a good idea, but because the key file requires a pass phrase any time it is read, that means that Apache has to prompt a user for the pass phrase.

Most people want Apache to start up automatically, so they remove the pass phrase completely. Apache provides an alternative though, which may or may not be useful. The trick to this is in the Apache SSLPassPhraseDialog setting. This setting defaults to ‘builtin’ which prompts the user for it when Apache starts. Alternatively, you can specify a script that reads the server name from STDIN and provides the pass phrase on STDOUT.

The apache config would look something like this:

SSLPassPhraseDialog  exec:/sbin/pp-exec

Then, you can create as simple or as complicated of a script as you would like in /sbin/pp-exec. Here is a very simple perl script with the passphrases hard-coded:

$server = $ARGV[0];
if ($server eq 'www.mydomain.com:443') {
    echo 'This is my pass phrase';
} elsif ($server eq 'www.otherdomain.com:443') {
    echo 'This is a different pass phrase';

Make sure that your script is readable and executable ONLY by root so that it is properly protected. Of course, if somebody can read your key file, that means that likely already have root access, which makes this simple script kindof pointless.

Fortunately, you can make that script as complicated as you want, perhaps saving the actual pass phrase in a database or LDAP. The really paranoid might come up with some way to text message an administrator and have them text the pass phrase back – or something equally complicated so that the pass phrase isn’t actually stored anywhere that an attacker could find it.

I guess the point is to have the pass phrase separate from the key file so that somebody would need both to make any use of it.

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